Tuesday, June 19, 2012


Ah, summer.

Long days of blue skies, big clouds, green trees, colorful flowers, warm rain, tall grass, iced coffee in the morning and Corona beers at night.  You got your flies, mosquitos and bees, sure, but you also have the hummingbirds and woodpeckers -- the season of the bear, the bat and the beaver, the ant and the squirrel. 

It’s also the season of sweating on the couch.

According to the Farmer’s Almanac, the northern summer solstice begins this week, a stretch of long, long days clocking in at 14 hours and 47 minutes, gray moons in the blue evening skies.  If we were cabin-bound in northern Inuit country, then we might be able to see old Sol, for a brief moment, standing still in the sunny midnight hour.  The origin of the word solstice is a combination of sol for “sun” and sistere which means “stands still.”

According to the Medicine Wheel, Wabun the Golden Eagle is flying away from his nest-throne and Shawnodese the Coyote Trickster begins the next three-moon reign, beginning with the paradoxical Strong Sun Moon.  Although considering that the sun and the moon share the sky during this season, maybe the Wheelmakers were on to something there.

If I had any of the spirit of Wabun in me, then I wouldn’t be here right now, in an air-conditioned urban cabin on some numbered street in just another grid in just another city somewhere along this great sprawling megalopolis. 

No, I’d be high-tailing it to the Big Horn county of Wyoming, ten-thousand feet up Medicine Mountain, and I’d be watching the sun rise along its solstice while sitting Indian-style at the southern cairn of an actual medicine wheel. 

Up on Medicine Mountain, there be one of the largest surviving Medicine Wheels, seventy-five feet in diameter, over eight hundred years old, perfectly aligned with the northern summer solstice.

Now that’s the kind of entrance that the Coyote deserves.

If Wabun the Golden Eagle is all eyes and wing, then Shawnodese the Coyote Trickster is all teeth and heart and, for better or for worse, all that the teeth devour and all that the heart ignites: love, hate, fear, sympathy, envy, jealousy, delight, rage, anger, desire, regret, hunger.

And so, it is only appropriate, that the Coyote’s three moons are dominated by the family of trees called the Roses.


Certain trees dominate certain seasons.  Here in Agricultural Hardy Zone Seven, I cannot think of a more dominant group of summer trees than the family Rosaceae, bearers of all that summer fruit.

It’d almost be easier to say which Zone Seven fruits are not members of the Rose family.  Blueberries and cranberries are not Roses.  They’re Heaths.  The persimmon is an Ebony, the grapes are Grapes, the nuts are Nuts, the tomato is a Night-shade, the pawpaw is a Custard Apple and the watermelons, the cantaloupes and the honeydews are members of the Gourd family.

Other than that, it’s all Roses: strawberries, cherries, peaches, apricots, plums, pecans, raspberries, blackberries, something called a loquat and a medlar, and later, the apples, the pears and the quinces.  Figs too.  Hop flowers and cannabis buds. All related to the Roses, all part of those hot summer nights.

The only drawback?  These are not common city trees.  Most of these Rose trees are cultivated and trained, pruned and domesticated, laid out in rows in orchards and fields, far away from the urban grid.  For citybilly tree-hunters like myself, the odds are stacked against us.  We’re more likely to find their droppings at local farmers’ markets than the actual fruit trees themselves.

But here’s the thing: never tell Jon Spruce the odds.


The namesake of the Rose family is not hard to find during this moon, not at all.  They are popping out and brightening up the streetscapes up and down the entire city.

The rose is the official plant totem of the Strong Sun Moon.  


Ain’t that just like Coyote?  

To place those big, flashy, fragrant hotshots of a flower right atop a woody, tangled bramble.  Forget those prize-winning beauties you see indoors under artificial lights in flower shows inside convention centers.  The natural rose plant is a prickly mess of stout stems that braid around other plants and trees like a vine.  In fact, many people believe that those sharp, curved prickles were adapted by the plant to help it climb over the forest scrub to reach the open sunlight shafts tunneling through the tree tops.

For more pictures of my rose-photo quarry, check out the Medicine Moon page of this blog.  For the moment, I’m more interested in finding the rose’s siblings, the fruit trees.

It’s summer and I’m hungry, broke and impatient.  I want fruit.  And I’m going to get me some fruit even if I have to eat it off the streets.

According to the small but trustworthy cabal of citybillies following this blog, the best place to go foraging for urban fruit is West Philly.  It didn’t take me long to stake my claims.


My first attempt at urban fruit foraging took me deep into the blighted crannies of West Philly, north of Lancaster Avenue, on the borderlines of the Mantua and Powelton neighborhoods.  Along such borders, there is something fruity going on.

In fact, there is something really interesting going on right along Preston Street in between 40th and 41st Streets.  There is a building there, a group home of some sort, completely unlabeled, which makes me think that it’s either a half-way house or a shelter for battered women.  It’s the cynic in me.

Whatever is going on inside this building, it’s pretty clear that somebody here is hungry.  The entire yard out front is a landscaped grove of Rose plants. This unsuspecting corner of the inner city?  Might as well call it a farm, really.

I see blackberries and raspberries and even a grouping of tall shrubs bearing tight clusters of red berries, so bright that I was sure they must be poisonous. 

This is either a real odd species of cherry or a member of the Holly family, I’m not sure.

I also saw an overgrown thicket of hop flowers.

Do I see a Preston Street Rehab Pale Ale in the future?


Around the corner, there is a whole swath of wild strawberry suckers covering the ground in front of the red-brick building. 

When you go wild fruit hunting, it’s best practice to keep your radius wide and circling.  A patch of strawberry suckers very rarely stays put…and sure enough, in the grassy vacant lot behind the unmarked building, I spied even more wild fruit popping out of the ground…but my attention was diverted by the sumac tree growing over the dilapidated wall at the edge of the vacant lot.

Sumac is not one of the Rose trees, but this is still a good find.  

This is a native wild tree, very rarely planted, but unmistakable, thanks to its big, upright bud of small, tight red flowers.  This sumac flower is used as a spice all around the world.  Middle Eastern families sprinkle it, dried, over salads.  I know one chef in town that uses it to season oven-roasted lamb ribs.

The Rose tree hunting didn’t stop there.  Right across the street from the vacant lot, in front of a boarded-up house, I found a peach tree, still bearing fruit.

The house itself was long abandoned.  The house was obviously empty, the lease up, the door locked and bolted and the front yard?  Gone to pot.  And yet, here was a peach tree, once planted, still putting out fruit. 


Of course.

Going urban fruit foraging, one thing becomes abundantly clear: a tree is a factory.


There are so many moving parts to a tree.  I don’t care that it’s just standing still, rooted down in one spot.  I still say a tree is just one collection of moving parts.  You don’t expect the Tastykake factory to move around, do you? 

Well, that’s what a tree is.  It’s a factory, a machine, an engine that burns sunlight and rain, dew and moonshadow.  I’m trying to learn how but, for some local trees, all those biofuels turn into sweet summer fruit.

And it can’t be stopped.  Once you turn the switch on, it'll stay on. 

The roots, the trunk, the bark and stems and flowers and leaves, the xylem and phloem, the wood and the sap: they all have their own function and use.  It usually involves some sort of way of catching, holding and transforming sunlight and water.  I’m only on the verge of understanding it myself. 

The thing is, once you plant this machine into the ground, you can’t really stop it from doing its work.  A true fruit grower knows how to train and prune the tree to maximize its productive output but, really, left unattended and left to its own devices, the tree just can’t stop working on its own.

That’s the lesson you learn while hunting for street fruit trees. 

All trees bear fruit, I know.  You got acorns, samaras, inedible nuts and beans, edible nuts and beans, spiky monkey-balls, pine cones, juniper berries, ginkgo nuts, inedible berries, edible berries, poisonous berries, and sweet summer stone fruits.  Botanically, it’s all fruit. 

The fact that humans pay money for some fruit is inconsequential to the inner workings of the tree.

I went up and down West Philly, mostly around the small neighborhood behind Clark Park.  In maybe a ten-block radius, I ended up catching about a dozen street fruit trees.  I could plot my path around the neighborhood, like some stupid Family Circus comic, but for once I’ll let the following pictures do all the talking.


Apricot tree on the street between...
...48th and 49th Street on Baltimore Avenue.
...green plums on a plum tree
Next to the apricot tree...

Raspberries on 47th Street...

...between Springfield and Baltimore Avenue.

...an apple tree on 47th Street.
Not a banana tree...

And lots more...I found three other apple trees, two other peach trees and...well, I'm saving my gold mine for a later post, I promise, but here's a sneak peek:

In my search for urban orchards, I found a hidden patch of native fruits in the middle of a block on Chester Avenue.

Inside this sunlit-slanted grove, I found a cherry tree, an apple tree, a gooseberry bush, elderberries, a hardy orange tree, a pawpaw, a grape vine and a northern kiwi vine.

Yeah, kiwis.

Those are kiwis.  Don't worry.  I'll be back.  Get ready for City Pickings II: Late Fall Summer Harvest.


Hunting for fruit trees in the early summer is just a tease though.  I’ve seen some early peaches at farmers’ markets but the real bounty is just about to begin, thanks to these long, hot days of summer.

I’m hungry for it.  I cannot wait to stock my fridge and fill my belly.

Every first fruit of the year becomes a moment: that dark winey burst of a cherry…the fuzzy musk of a peach…the grassy arabesque of an apricot and the candy satin of a plum…and later, the woody sugars of the pear and the brisk crunch of all those apples.

Every week now, from the Strong Sun Moon all the way to the Ducks Fly Moon of late October-time, these Rose trees will be working, sun-up to sun-down, to produce all that fruit.  

They’re working very, very hard.  

Me?  Jon Spruce? 

Well, I’m taking it easy.  It’s summer.  I’m just waiting…watching…watching and waiting. 

Waiting for the peaches...48th Street
Watching for the plums...49th Street
Ready for the apples...secret location

1 comment:

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